County considers forming spaceport authority
Camden County Board of Commissioners has been working for the last five years to establish a commercial spaceport, but is a separate spaceport authority the way of the future?
The board took no action on that question during a Tuesday evening work session, but agreed to place it on the Feb. 19 agenda for consideration.
“That’s probably the latest we should act so it gets into the legislative hopper,” said Camden County Attorney John Myers.
If approved by commissioners on Feb. 19, the county would then work with state legislators to get the enabling legislation approved by the General Assembly during the current legislative session.
Why an authority?
Tuesday’s work session featured a presentation by two Savannah attorneys who have helped the board form other authorities in the past, such as the county’s solid waste authority.
The advantage of an authority, said attorney Jonathan Pannell, was the ability to enter into long-term debt without having to first get the permission of voters. This, in turn, makes it easier to enter into years-long contracts, which could become necessary if the county wants to establish the spaceport as a public-private venture or issue revenue bonds to fund capital projects.
The attorney also mentioned “liability reasons” and not being encumbered by the “gratuities clause” as further advantages of an authority to govern the spaceport.
“The reason authorities are usually formed in Georgia is because they can contract and do a lot of things the county can’t do directly,” Pannell said.
On the other hand, the board of commissioners would have to get permission through a ballot referendum to obligate taxpayers in that manner.
Pannell recommended the authority be patterned after the many airport authorities that exist in Georgia with additional language that is inclusive of space vehicles and launches.
This makes sense, he said, since the county is also considering a new airport to replace the one that was closed in St. Marys in 2017. He said the language could be flexible to accommodate whatever direction the county wanted to take on either project.
Commissioners questioned whether a spaceport and an airport should be governed by the same authority and generally agreed that would not be ideal.
Following an airport authority model, the authority would have five members that would be appointed by the Camden County Board of Commissioners, but the county would need to determine the makeup of the board, Pannell said.
Starline asked if the authority members could be the same as the board of commissioners.
Pannell said that was not a good idea because the county could be accused of creating an “alter ego” rather than a separate governing authority. Someone could then challenge the legitimacy of any contracts created under that “alter ego,” he said.
The chairman pointed out that the county’s solid waste authority has the same voting members as the Camden County Board of Commissioners and asked if the county should change that. The attorney said that would probably be a good idea for the sake of establishing them as clearly separate entities.
Commissioner Lannie Brant, who was employed as the county’s solid waste director prior to being elected to office, said the solid waste authority members included a combination of elected officials and staff when it was first established, but commissioners changed that several years ago.
As for the spaceport authority, the attorneys presented it as a “tool in the toolbox” but that officials would be under no obligation to use it. Since the authority would have to be established by a vote of the state legislature, doing this now would allow the county to keep that option available for the coming year, they said.
Not so sure
Following the work session, board chair Jimmy Starline told the Tribune & Georgian that he personally felt like it might be better to just run the project as a county department.
When asked if he was concerned about the loss of control over the project, since an authority is a separate political subdivision of the state, he admitted that was a factor.
“I’m reluctant to turn this over to who knows who,” said Starline.